Riding my bicycle as a young boy was my first taste of freedom, my first opportunity to travel out-of-sight of my own home, the first time I could choose my own routes. I could ride where I wanted all by myself. I was free.
When I was in elementary school I rode my bike to school almost every day, riding about a mile from our house at 1409 Shannon Drive to East Primary School (Kermit, TX). I must have been about 4th grade, but the memories tend to run together, so I’m not so sure.
There were a few winter mornings when it was too cold to ride my bike to school and my mom would give me a ride in the car, but that meant I had to walk home at 3:00 PM, which I never wanted to do. I can remember weighing the decision – a warm ride to school but long walk home, or cold bike ride to school but a fun bike ride home. I chose the bike most often.
So maybe that’s why I was receptive when my son, Byron, decided he wanted to ride his bike to school all by himself. He was attending Rusk Elementary at the time so that made him a 1st or 2nd grader. We lived on Whittle Way, about a mile west of the Rusk campus (Midland, TX).
Byron worked on me for several days to talk me into letting him ride. He and I had biked many miles together, riding to Burger King or playing missile-lock on the streets around our house, so I knew he was a good cyclist. Still, we were talking about a little boy all by himself.
But he had a plan. He’d figured which neighborhood streets to take to minimize his time on busy Neely Street, and he could rattle off the streets and turns by memory even while standing in our living room. He was ready, and I couldn’t think of any reason not to let him try.
So after a week of listening to Byron describe the adventure I finally told him he could do it as long as I drove behind him in the car. The next morning he saddled up and rode the route with me trailing in my car about a half-block behind. He knew I was following because we left the house together, but you couldn’t tell by his actions - he never looked over his shoulder even once. He was eyes-ahead all the way. He stopped at all intersections, checked for traffic, and rode close to the curb and away from cars. He was amazing.
I followed him for a few days, still with no acknowledgment from him other than a short wave after he arrived at school and locked his bike to the rack. He wanted me to know he was brave enough to do this on his own. Finally, he asked if I was OK with it all and could I stop following him. “Sure,” I said. And with that, he was a free man, and I was a proud dad.
I told him about the time I was on my way to school when my bike chain jumped the sprocket. I unloaded my books from the baskets and flipped the bike upside down on the seat and handlebars and rethreaded the chain. It wasn’t easy to do in the days before derailleurs since there was little slack in the chain. It took me a long time to get the chain back on and to ride the rest of the way to school. When I rode up to the bike racks and saw the empty playground and quiet schoolyard I knew I was very late. School had started long before.
When I walked into my homeroom the teacher raised her eyebrows at my lateness. I told her about losing my chain and that it took me a long time to fix it. She was rightfully skeptical – either she’d heard that lame excuse too many times, or she doubted a kid could actually make a repair like that. But I showed her my hands, which were black with grease from the chain, and she smiled and told me to drop off my books and go to the boy’s bathroom and wash up. I think she was actually proud of me.
The reason I knew how to fix the chain was because my dad taught me. He taught me how to flip it over upside down to work on it. He taught me how to fix flats, take apart the crank and grease the bearings, and how to service the wheels and hubs. Riding my bicycle was more than freedom, it was also the first time I was responsible for maintenance. With freedom came the responsibility to keep the bike rolling. I loved it. It felt substantial to work on my bike.
The boys on my block, we rode our bikes everywhere - in the street or alleys or dirt roads in the surrounding pastureland. We often rode behind the city truck that was spraying DDT in the alleys to kill mosquitoes. It was a challenge to see who could ride the closest to the fogger for the longest, surrounded by the white billowing cloud of chemical vapor. We must have reeked from the DDT when we got home but I don’t remember ever getting in trouble with mom for smelling like a chemical dump. Maybe as young boys we smelled bad enough already, and the DDT didn’t make that much difference?
I remember we had all watched a movie about knights and jousting and we wanted to do something like that on our bikes without killing or maiming each other. The solution we came up with was grass bur fighting.
We would pick grass burrs and pull off the leaves so all that was left was a long stem and a head with 6 or 8 individual burrs clustered on the end. We’d gather up a handful of those and climb on our bikes and go after each other, holding the grass burs in one hand and throwing them at each other with the other hand as we passed by. You were lucky if they stuck to your clothing; unlucky if they stuck to your arm or leg, or worse, your face or neck.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom lately, the freedom that comes with age. I am old enough now I can pick where I work, pick were I go to church, pick who I live with and love. I am free to buy better gear than I had when I was young in Kermit so I can handle the cold weather better. I am basically free to run or ride wherever I want.
However, freedom demands responsibility, since I have to answer for many of those choices. And not only does freedom demand responsibility, it needs risk. As youngsters, the wild freedom of riding fast with abandon came with the risk of crashing. Or the risk of a grass burr in your eyelid, or clothes that stunk from DDT.
Without risk there is no freedom, and without freedom there can be no joy. I’m not sure you can live a safe and risk-free life and have joy. It certainly won’t be free.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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